China’s Li Na wins her maiden Australian Open title in her third Melbourne Park final, defeating Dominika Cibulkova in straight sets on Saturday night.By Darren Saligari | Saturday, 25 January, 2014
It was third time lucky for Li Na, who defeated Dominika Cibulkova to win the Australian Open 2014 women's singles title on Saturday night.
In a match of two very distinct halves, Li emerged the victor in straight sets, 7-6(3) 6-0, in one hour and 37 minutes. Thanks to the victory, Li will move up to No.3 when the rankings are released on Monday.
The highest seed left in the tournament at No. 4, dual Australian Open finalist and former French Open champion Li was expected to win.
She had the easier run of the two finalists, not playing a single player in the top 20 until Cibulkova, the tournament's 20th seed.
Li did, however, have to save a match point in her third-round match with Lucie Safarova. And by winning she becomes just the fourth player – along with Monica Seles, Jennifer Capriati and Serena Williams (twice) – to save a match point and go on to win the title.
Cibulkova's road to the final was much tougher. The 161cm Slovakian was forced to overcome four of the top 16 seeds en route to Saturday night's final.
As the two women entered the pressure cooker of Rod Laver Arena, the expectation of victory was sitting heavily on Li's shoulders.
Early on, the Chinese No.1 defied the pressure she was feeling to break Cibulkova in the first game of the match. The fourth seed's backhand opened up Cibulkova, with a double fault on break point a gift the Slovakian would have preferred not to give.
With a break in hand, Li should have settled into the rhythm of the match, but she never looked entirely comfortable in the opening set. Her first serve percentage was barely a pass at 52 per cent, and she hit more unforced errors than winners – 25 to 22.
Early exchanges between the two did not reach any great heights, both players making their share of elementary errors.
“[At the] beginning of the match I think both of us was tight, nervous. Also like I don't think I have very good first serve, as well,” said Li.
What was working for Li was her always-reliable backhand. The same, however, could not be said of her forehand, which Cibulkova was soon targeting as Li's weaker side.
Worryingly for Li, rather than settle as the first set evolved, she tightened. A disastrous service game at 3-2 was just what Cibulkova was waiting for. The grateful challenger gleefully snatched her first break of the match off the back of consecutive double faults from Li.
Now it was Cibulkova who looked in control, attacking balls with the ferocity of a pitbull and refusing to let go of any point, chasing every ball like her life depended on it.
Just as she was looking capable of potentially causing a major upset, a loose game from the Slovakian late in the set gave Li the chance to serve for the set at 6-5.
But she couldn't hold. Li's ball toss went askew four times in this game alone as her nerves took over. Cibulkova seized on Li's unsteadiness and broke back to force the set to a tiebreak.
Thankfully for the fourth seed, the old Li returned, hitting a swag of winners to take the tiebreak 7-3.
The first set alone lasted 70 minutes; the second set would require just 27.
“It's like after if you win a very tight first set, you think, Okay, already one set in the pocket. Like feeling one feet already touching in trophy,” said Li.
“So, yeah, of course if you have one set in pocket, second set you can play more aggressive, attack her.
With the staccato first set behind her and her confidence rising by the minute, Li grabbed control of the match early in the second set, shutting Cibulkova out.
“After she won first two games, she just, I would say, relaxed. She was more relaxed and she was going for her shots,” explained Cibulkova.
“After [that] it was impossible for me to do something and be aggressive because she was just really, really playing well.
“I was under pressure all the times. Sometimes I catch myself running one metre behind the baseline. That's not how I play. This is why she was better.”
Li’s backhand barely missed and her forehand, which had given away so many cheap points in the first set, was now finding its mark. In all, Li struck 34 winners to Cibulkova’s 11 to go with 30 and 28 unforced errors respectively.
And as Li grew bolder, Cibulkova wilted. She continued to chase and fight, but Li had the ascendancy and was overpowering the diminutive Slovakian.
As Li closed the match out with her fifth break of serve, she finally had a happy memory to replace the pain of the two losing finals she played here in 2011 and 2013 – and the Grand Slam of Asia-Pacific had a singles champion from the region.